Gifts that leave only a memory behind

The gift of a homemade meal shows friends that they're cared for but doesn't add clutter to their lives.

I have always been ambivalent about shopping. And the holiday season usually brings this ambivalence to the forefront.

I grew up in a middle-class family in India, with parents who shopped only for things that were needed. And so, as a child, I perceived shopping as nothing more than a necessary adult chore to assist daily living.

My parents, who lived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), shopped for most of their nonperishable groceries once a month.

"Two kilos of rice, three bars of soap...," they would tell the store owner in person or by phone, and someone would deliver the packages to our home, wrapped in newspaper.

On other sporadic shopping trips for incidentals, a person behind the counter would get the items my parents wanted and put them into their tote bag. My parents would pay cash and move on to their next errand.

They did not have much opportunity for browsing or for impulse buying of unnecessary items. Milk was delivered daily, and vegetables were bought every other day at the nearby market.

Shopping for clothes was also based on need. My sister and I got new school uniforms every year, new clothes on birthdays and on some religious holidays, and before our long summer visits to our grandparents' homes. My parents bought clothes for themselves occasionally – sometimes on special holidays, but mostly to replace old, worn-out clothes.

As we got older, my sister and I were sent on shopping errands – something that we initially enjoyed, reveling in our "semiadult" status, but then became weary of and tried to escape from.

Armed with this general apathy toward shopping, I arrived in the United States 20 years ago as a graduate student.

Initially, shopping was an intriguing new cultural experience. Even a trip to the grocery store required new skills – negotiating multiple brands for the simplest of items such as toothpaste, checking unit prices, and searching for customer assistance.

And since I could now browse among the aisles, I sometimes bought things that I didn't really need.

Thankfully, my busy graduate-student schedule, my small income, and my aptitude for a simple life kept me from buying too many clothes or accessories.

My downfall, however, came when I found books at bargain prices, which I often bought with the hope of finding time to read them in some distant future.

While in graduate school, I also met and married a man who shared my love of leading a simple life, my fondness for books, and my indifference to shopping.

Over the years, we put down roots in the US. As our ties with people here became stronger, we began to give and receive gifts during the holiday season. And when our daughter was born nine years ago, we also began to experience the giving and receiving of gifts at birthday celebrations.

Gradually, the two suitcases with which my husband and I had each arrived in the US multiplied many times over. And about five years ago, the clutter of possessions in our home began to bother us, as we realized how much we had strayed from our ideal of the "simple" life.

During my Christmas shopping that year, I had an intense reaction at the mall, as I watched people going around shopping for gifts, laden with bags, and buying even more things.

I could not shop anymore and walked out without buying anything on my gift list. I simply couldn't bring myself to add clutter to other people's homes.

My husband and I talked a lot that night about the practice of giving "things" to symbolize love. We agreed that receiving gifts felt good, but only because they expressed that "we mattered" to someone. And giving gifts felt good when the gift was something that the other person needed or enjoyed.

But what could we give people who could buy everything they needed and wanted? What could we give instead of objects – to show them that they mattered to us?

We reached back into our childhoods for other ways of showing love and remembered our moms making snacks to give to friends and family during the holidays.

We remembered our six-month stay in Tokyo, where giving gifts of food was common, and the stores were filled with elegantly packaged food items.

We adapted these two memories to create a new tradition in our family. First, we decided against burdening our friends with snacks and packaged foods.

We opted instead to give homemade food that our friends liked, but did not make themselves. Since my husband and I are both vegetarians of Indian origin, we settled on two favorites – vegetarian chili and Channa Masala (a spicy stew of chickpeas and tomatoes) – to give as gifts.

We spent a weekend making both dishes and delivering them to a few neighbors and friends. They loved the food, and we got several requests for recipes.

We have continued this tradition ever since, adding more dishes to our gift list.

We still buy gift cards or books for adults whose culinary preferences we have yet to learn. But we hope that as we get to know them better, we can make more gifts of food, as a labor of love to lessen their burden of cooking on a busy night.

Our daughter has come to love this tradition of making and delivering food, and it has become part of her expectations for the holiday season. This year, she has suggested that we add her new favorite food, Saag Paneer (a spicy spinach and cheese dish), to the list of gifts.

We hope that our friends continue to enjoy our offerings of thanks – of smells, colors, tastes, and cultural experiences from a far-off land – that now come from our home in central Pennsylvania to theirs.

It's an annual offering that we hope brings them joy, while leaving no trace behind, other than that of a cherished memory.

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